A plaque honoring America’s first black Army infantry, the 54th Regiment, now sits at the corner of Beacon and Park Streets in Boston. The Shaw Memorial by sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens is a new monument that stands 11 feet tall and 14 feet wide. It honors the fallen black soldiers who fought bravely in the Civil War under Col. Robert Gould Shaw. The statue took 14 years to complete.
The 54th Massachusetts Regiment was formed in 1863. It was comprised of freed slaves in the Union and the first organized infantry of African Americans in the Civil War. The men trained at Boston’s Camp Meigs. Controversy ensued for their promised wages, which was $13 per month. Upon enlisting, the men were only paid $7 per month and were told the deduction was for clothing, an expense the white soldiers did not have to pay. This often resulted in protest. It was not until September 28, 1864 that the U.S. Congress took action to get the black soldiers back pay. By that time, most men had served for over one year.
The brave men of the 54th Volunteer Regiment were defeated at Fort Wagner in South Carolina 150 years ago. Out of 600, 272 men fell, along with Colonel Robert G. Shaw. Sergeant William Harvey Carney was awarded the Medal of Honor for grabbing the U.S. flag and carrying it to the enemy ramparts and back, and singing “Boys, the old flag never touched the ground!” It was one of the most tragic battles for the regiment but significant in the overall Civil War and the win of the Union Army.
The monument in Boston is part of the Black Heritage Trail.
The 54th Massachusetts regiment was memorialized in the 1989 Academy Award-winning film “Glory” with Denzel Washington and Morgan Freeman.